Man cannot live by binge alone: A brief guide to Ofcom’s Communications Market Report

Ofcom’s annual data-fest is out. The Communications Market Report is a vital touchstone in the media industry.

This year, Ofcom’s press release has led with people binge-watching TV – that is, watching multiple on-demand episodes of a TV show in one sitting. Binging on telly like this is a wonderful thing and lots of us do it sometimes. But it is more an occasional treat, not the norm. The fact is that the average viewer in the UK watches 3.5 hours of TV a day, 86% of which is live and un-bingeable, although there is nothing to say that we can’t ‘binge’ on live TV, watching all our 3.5 hours in a back-to-back block.

Ofcom’s focus on on-demand binging has had the unintended consequence of causing a rush of articles announcing that everything has changed and things will never be the same again.

That clearly isn’t the case – as the report itself makes clear – but the noise can drown out the nuance. So please allow us to address a few of the issues and hopefully give a clearer picture.

What is binging?

Watching multiple episodes of a TV show on-demand and in a single sitting. Sometimes covered in crumbs.

What is the opposite of binging?

There isn’t a very satisfactory expression. Savouring? Deferring gratification? Sheer love and respect for the art of expertly scheduling TV? Not-binging?

Is binge viewing on the rise?

Probably, but we don't actually know as this is the first time Ofcom has looked at it in its report. There is no comparable data from previous years.  Their report has found that 35% of people in the UK claim to binge weekly. It could have been the same five years ago.

People have always binged on TV when possible. Now that it is easier to do than ever it isn't unreasonable to suspect that we are doing it more than ever. Either way, it is, as Ofcom says, “commonplace”.

Will binge viewing replace live viewing?

Not in the foreseeable future. Ofcom's report is very clear that binge viewing – and catch-up TV generally – are complementary sidekicks to ‘normal’ TV viewing.  Live viewing remains the main way people watch their TV shows. They also highlight the strength of shared viewing:

“Family viewing is still an integral part of family life. Three in ten (30%) adults say their family still watches the same programmes or films together every day, while 70% do so at least once a week. Nearly seven in ten (68%) say watching TV can bring the whole family together for a shared viewing experience."

We are sociable beasts and just because technology enables us to do something doesn’t mean we suddenly jettison millennia of evolution and social behaviour.

Is binge viewing a solo pursuit?

We don’t all sit binging on TV cocooned in our private worlds like something out of an H.G. Wells story. We do sometimes of course; that’s the joy of having personal screens, we don’t have to settle for default family viewing if there is something else we fancy watching. But, just as we often watch live TV together, we can also choose to binge together on on-demand TV.

How does Ofcom get its figures?

The figures on binging are based on an online survey. So it is claimed rather than actual, measured behaviour.

An important thing to note about this approach in regard to TV viewing is that it usually exaggerates the popularity of newer ways to watch TV precisely because they are newer; they stick out in the memory more. There is also an element of self-image; people like to appear and feel that they are modern and doing things differently from the herd, so they represent themselves accordingly.

How much time is spent binging on TV?

We don’t know. Ofcom asked people about how they claim to behave. So when they say that 35% of the UK watches multiple episodes of the same TV series back-to-back every week (55% monthly) we only get an idea of claimed regularity not actual volume.

It would be very interesting to know what proportion of TV viewing is binged. We know from BARB that 86% of standard TV viewing in the UK is watched live, so that means that only 14% is eligible for a bit of binging.

What else is in the report?

Plenty – enough stats to binge on for hours. One that stood out is that UK broadcasters invested £7.3 billion in TV shows in 2016, up 11% year on year. They are binging on TV shows as much as anyone.

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